Pretend for a moment that you're walking through your neighbourhood and notice a line of people wrapped around the block outside a newly opened restaurant.
Local food bloggers haven't written about the venue, so you assume the trendy-looking crowd must be the result of contagious, word-of-mouth buzz.
There was a time when that may have been undoubtedly true – when you could trust that a crowd of people was, in fact, a naturally occurring mass of individuals.
Diners for cash
But that time may be passing thanks to Surkus, an emerging app that allowed the restaurant to quickly manufacture its ideal crowd and pay the people to stand in place like extras on a movie set. They've even been hand-picked by a casting agent of sorts, an algorithmic one that selects each person according to age, location, style and Facebook "likes."
They may look excited, but that could also be part of the production. Acting disengaged while they idle in line could tarnish their "reputation score," an identifier that influences whether they'll be "cast" again. Nobody is forcing the participants to stay, of course, but if they leave, they won't be paid – their movements are being tracked with geolocation.
The new world of "crowdcasting"
Surkus raises new questions about the future of advertising and promotion. At a time when it has become commonplace for individuals to broadcast polished versions of their lives on social media, does Surkus give businesses a formidable tool to do the same, renting beautiful people and blending them with advertising in a way that makes reality nearly indiscernible? Or have marketers found a new tool that offers them a far more efficient way to link brands with potential customers, allowing individuals to turn themselves into living extensions of the share economy using a structured, mutually beneficial transaction?
The answer depends on whom you ask.
Matchmaker make me a reservation
Stephen George, Surkus's 30-year-old chief executive, said he considers his app an online matchmaker, one that pairs companies with the people who want to hear from them. If successful, he said, Surkus threatens to disrupt the expensive role that promoters and public relations firms have traditionally played in advertising and brand-building.
"So many companies know their core demographic, but they don't know how to get a hold of those people," George said.
"They hire promoters and marketers and PR agencies to connect, but it's a one-sided interaction that involves blasting out a message to get people engaged, but they don't necessarily know if that message is being received."
Not just a pretty face
Not everyone, however, is convinced that Surkus – which makes it easier for promoters and marketers to filter crowds according to people's attractiveness – will improve that reception.
"I understand the need for quick results and attendance and that sometimes brands need people lined up at their door," said Kerry O'Grady, a professor at New York University's School of Professional Studies who teaches courses on public relations.
"Okay, you have a bunch of pretty faces at a party, but what does that do?" O'Grady continued. "It's not going to do anything if they just want to get paid to party and have no attachment to the brand itself."
Go out. Have fun. Get paid.
George, a Chicago native, got his start working with Groupon as a sophomore at DePaul University. He went on to make millions from the company's stock before investing $315,425 in Surkus in 2015.
The company's tagline: "Go out. Have fun. Get paid."
George said the company has amassed 150,000 members in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco. Anyone can download the app. The members are of all ages and backgrounds, George said, noting that people are drawn by the chance to be social and get paid.
After quietly launching two years ago, Surkus members have attended 4200 events for 750 clients, including big-name brands, hospitality groups, live-ticketed shows, movie castings and everyday people who want to throw a party. George said users can be paid as little as $6 and as much as $125, though the average for most events is between $30 and $50. Prolific users, he said, can earn as much as $5000 a year. And Surkus takes a portion of the client's budget for each event.
Now a warning
Caroline Thompson, 27, a contributing writer for Vice, said she downloaded Surkus and attended an event last year at a Chicago club full of "finance bros" on a Thursday night.
"It was a little weird that probably 80 percent of the women at the club were there because of the app," she said.
Thompson said she was paid $50 to attend the event.
Balancing targeted and transparency
O'Grady called the system "scary" and said it raises ethical questions for companies that turn to the app for crowds.
"Good PR is all about transparency," she said. "But in this case you're telling people to be discreet, but you're also telling us the events are organic and that people want to be there, and that's not okay."
George rejected the idea that Surkus allows brands to create fake events that manipulate consumers.
"We want to know as much as possible about you, so we can make sure we're on target with your interests and what you love to do, so that you just can't say no to an invitation," he said.
The Washington Post